The Insta king trying to dominate UK cannabissento
Controversial social media star Dan Bilzerian is wearing a tiny pair of orange shorts and a tight white T-shirt when I meet him.
It’s not the outfit of a typical company founder, but one that already feels familiar thanks to the thousands of similar photos of himself he’s posted on social media.
The wealthy, muscular, perma-tanned American has been dubbed the King of Instagram for documenting his apparently lavish lifestyle of extravagant parties, fast cars, yachts, adventure sports and guns while constantly surrounded by a posse of near-naked, adoring women.
He’s in the UK trying to break into the nascent cannabis market with his company Ignite.
Already established in the US and Canada, the company is selling vaping liquids and e-cigs, edible drops and lip balms which contain a cannabis extract known as Cannabidiol or CBD.
It’s the latest in a rush of companies to try and exploit what is expected to become a booming commercial market.
While recreational use of cannabis remains illegal in most places in the world, CBD has no psychoactive effect which means it can’t get you high.
There are not yet any conclusive scientific studies on its effect, but many users have claimed it has helped relieve inflammation and pain or reduced their anxiety.
In the UK it’s legal to sell it, providing firms don’t make any claims about its medical benefits and it contains no more than 0.2% of the THC, the cannabis part, which does get you high.
Industry insiders say Ignite’s money and scale – it’s currently valued at around £90m – mean it has the potential to dominate in a sector which is still at an early stage.
The prospect of the firm’s success fills Carly Barton, a campaigner for people who use cannabis for medical purposes, with dread. She recently pulled out of an industry conference after discovering Mr Bilzerian was speaking at it.
“We’re building up an industry which has barely just begun. We’ve got the opportunity to shape it in the way we feel is appropriate for the people. There is a responsibility to set some kind of moral standard.
“We can’t let people come in and think it’s okay to parade girls around with the products.”
Ignite has been marketed largely by Mr Bilzerian’s own social media feeds. He has a following of 27 million people on Instagram alone, despite the blatantly sexist nature of many of his posts which evoke a bygone era of say the 1970s, not the 2019 post-MeToo era we’re living in.
Like some kind of superhero cartoon character, this Hugh Hefner of the internet age lives alone in a huge mansion, has had all his body hair removed so he can show off his muscles better and has regular stem cell injections to treat his sports injuries.
In person, he’s surprisingly low key. Serious, softly spoken and even likeable.
He says his Instagram feed is the “highlight reel” for his life, showcasing the “kind of aspirational lifestyle of fast cars, nice things that when I was a kid I thought was really cool and I wished that I had”.
Ignite’s recent extravagant launch party was a case in point.
Reported to have cost £500,000 it was dominated by young, beautiful women circulating among industry workers. One, offering me a puff on her Ignite e-cig, told me she was “looked after well” to promote the products.
It’s an arrangement Mr Bilzerian makes no secret of. Last year, the firm ran a nationwide US competition offering $100,000 year-long contracts to 10 women for representing the brand.
“We hire models, but that’s a business thing. Any successful company has female models. Having attractive women is very appealing to most men,” he says.
His former girlfriend, who has 1.4 million Instagram followers, has now become the firm’s leading sales person: “It’s basically she’s a pretty girl, she stands behind the product,” he says.
For his social media followers, the overwhelming majority of whom are males aged between 18 and 35, it’s the kind of advertising which works perfectly, he argues.
“At the end of the day if you want to effectively market to a target group, you’re not going to appeal to everybody. Those companies that try and cater to everybody, end up making everybody not care,” he says.
He’s less forthcoming on whether his particular vision of manhood is one he should be promoting, instead arguing: “I don’t pressure anyone to do anything for me. If a woman is not chasing after me, it’s not my thing.”
He brushes off complaints that he is damaging the cannabis industry’s already fragile reputation, saying he is simply commercialising his sizeable following. “I don’t tell them how to run their company and they shouldn’t tell me how to run mine,” he says.
Currently no one is telling cannabis companies how to do anything and that’s part of the problem, says UK industry body the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis (CMC).
The CBD market in the UK is currently valued at £300m a year, according to the CMC. By 2025, it expects this to skyrocket to £1bn.
This potential growth rate is attracting a huge variety and standard of products.
There’s CBD-infused water to skincare ranges, massage oils, bath bombs, lip balms, all pledging as yet unproven benefits from calmness to laser focus. There’s even CBD-infused snacks aimed at anxious dogs.
All these products must meet the standards of the category they come under, so food or cosmetics guidelines, for example. But the CBD part is largely unregulated, leaving a large loophole for misleading advertising or irresponsible marketing.
The CMC won’t comment on Ignite specifically, but in its recent report on the sector it says the challenge for the industry is “not to be undermined down the road by the bad players that do exist in the fast-growing and disruptive CBD market”.
It wants firms to self regulate, urging them to be “socially responsible”.
It’s a message that Mr Bilzerian may finally be beginning to heed.
“A lot of what I’m doing right now is maintaining the marketing. It’s almost run its course,” he admits.